On July 19th, Saudi journalist and prisoner of conscience, Saleh al-Shehi, died shortly after he was released from prison. Al-Shehi, who was described as a “dear friend” by the late Jamal Khashoggi, had been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia due to his public criticisms of government corruption. Al-Shehi’s death casts further light on the ongoing dangers that peaceful dissidents face in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia ranked in 2020 alongside North Korea, Iran, and China as the world’s worst countries for press freedom.
Al-Shehi was first arrested in January of 2018, and sentenced to five years in prison and a five year travel ban. He was charged with “insulting the royal court” shortly after he appeared on television stating that “anyone with a connection in the royal court” was at an advantage in society, citing issues of nepotism in the country.
Al-Shehi had previously been suspended from writing on two occasions for criticizing ministers prior to his arrest. Despite this, he bravely continued calling for improvements to the government system. In his final article published in al-Watan News, the young journalist criticized inconsistencies in ministerial policies and power distribution that caused certain regions in Saudi Arabia to remain significantly underdeveloped. Al-Shehi often tackled issues that others rightfully feared to cover, criticizing the government’s economic policies, state corruption, and the abuse of foreign workers in the Kingdom.
Saleh al-Shehi’s twitter account had been silent since December of 2017, his last tweet announcing his appearance on the T.V. show that would later lead to his arrest. The silence was broken on May 21, 2020, when a suspicious tweet appeared in his name praising the Saudi King and “His Royal Highness the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman”. On June 1st, al-Shehi’s family members tweeted that he had been temporarily released from prison. Days later he was in the intensive care unit in al-Burj Medical Center, eventually dying on July 19, 2020. Some reports allege the writer died from COVID-19.
Al-Shehi’s unplanned release from prison came shortly after the death of Saudi human rights advocate Dr. Abdullah al-Hamid, who also died while serving a prison sentence in April of 2020. Dr. Al-Hamid was a founder of the Saudi Arabian Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA). He and his reformist colleagues had formed the organization to document and advocate for the rights of Saudi citizens.
All of Dr. Al-Hamid’ ACPRA colleagues have also been arrested and continue to serve lengthy prison sentences for charges related to challenging the authority of the Saudi government. Dr. al-Hamid himself had been informed months prior to his death that he was in need of immediate heart surgery. International campaigns that called on Saudi authorities to get him treatment were ignored, resulting in his death on April 23, 2020. Several Saudis who tweeted condolences following Dr. al-Hamid’s death in prison were themselves consequently detained.
The Saudi regime has a history of torturing prisoners of conscience. The deaths of Dr. al-Hamid and Saleh al-Shehi raise questions as to whether medical negligence against peaceful dissidents may be a new tactic of the Saudi regime to silence their critics. Alia al-Hathoul, the sister of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who has been arbitrarily detained since 2018, tweeted that al-Shehi had been handed over to his family to die days before his death, and she expressed her concern for her own sister’s life.
Saleh al-Shehi’s daughter, Watan, who identifies as the “proud daughter of a great man”, wrote several tweets describing her unbearable pain and heartache over the loss of her father.
Saudi Arabia has been estimated to have over 2,600 prisoners of conscience. The Saudi government released 250 foreign detainees amidst fears of coronavirus in March of 2020. The health status of the remaining prisoners of conscience – now cut off from phone contact with their families for several months – is cause for serious alarm.